Wale Adenuga, MFR, arguably Nigeria’s longest standing entertainment entrepreneur is the largely unknown face behind some of Nigeria’s most popular television series “Super Story” and “Papa Ajasco.” From three comics that he started in the 1970s, he is now the proud proprietor of a television channel, a thriving film school and one of the foremost production outfits in the country. He speaks to eelive.ng about how, from, being a graduate of Business Administration of the University of Lagos, he has become a leading name in film and television production on the African continent.
You studied at the University of Lagos in the 1970s, what was it like looking for a job then?
In fact, before you left campus jobs were waiting for you. They would come there to interview you. So many companies; UAC, Lagos state tax office, all these big companies, PZ, Leventis,
Did you have any of that?
Yes, I had. Before I left the campus I already had two jobs waiting for me with the Lagos State Tax Board and Central Bank. The challenge I had then was that, right from the time I was serving, I had already started working towards the cartoon magazine, because I had a fruitful outing with the magazine that I did with some of my friends on the campus. The name of the magazine was Viper and I was inspired to do something for a larger audience. During youth service, I had already started gathering jokes. On starting work with my dad, who was a huge distributor, my attention was on the magazine. So, I was not interested in picking up jobs essentially because I wanted the opportunity to work on my magazine.
Why were you so interested in starting something for yourself?
Right from my secondary school days, I had been a very good artist, and even in the university I exhibited that much by publishing cartoon magazines which sold very well. So, I thought I would succeed outside. I was dreaming of making money. I saw it as a better alternative than taking a salaried job elsewhere. I felt how much was the salary? But from this magazine thing I was so sure, I was going to make a lot of money. It was a calculated risk. Every business involves a risk, but this was a calculated risk. We had done it on a small scale at the campus, we made money. Then we were selling two to three thousand copies but now I just extended my vision. I thought if I could sell fifty thousand copies I would make money.
Was the magazine on campus exclusively for you?
It was the club that was publishing the bugging magazine which entailed the use of cartoons to entertain people. Those cartoons were caricature of our colleagues, who were caught in unpleasant situations. We called it bugging then. We also had some general jokes that you cartoon just to entertain. But then my idea was, since I was going to publish this magazine I was not going to be bugging members of the public, so it would be purely jokes and cartoons. I know I needed cartoon characters, I created the cartoon characters myself. I looked for each generation of people. By that I mean I looked at the children, what can I use to represent the children and I arrived at Ajasco, for the teenagers, Pepeye for a girl and Alinco for the boy. For the middle age average man that is still philandering, Papa Ajasco. There are a lot of jokes associated with old age, ignorance and stupidity, I created Pa Jimoh for that which later changed to Pa James. With that in mind, I designed each character on my table and I went into production, while I was working for my dad.
It was a secret business then. I was working for the old man and the old man did not know I was doing PP (part time business). I hid everything from everybody. When I started selling I didn’t put my name. I was using my nick name Manee Gogogo
So your dad didn’t know
He didn’t know. I took it to the main distributor at Ibadan who sold it up to the University of Ife then. He sent some copies to Ife and sold in Ibadan. The first two editions went to Ibadan but from the third edition it went to Lagos. I travelled to Lagos to appoint a distributor, from Lagos, it blew. After about six editions I was forced to take it more seriously. That was when I resigned.
Can you share one of the business lessons you learnt from being with your father?
First, I discovered that out of the four factors of production, which we call the big four Ms i.e. money, machine, materials and man power, man is the most difficult to manage. I discovered you need the blessing of God to manage men. If you have enough money, your business will thrive. If you have good, dependable machines, your business will thrive. If you have original genuine materials, your business will thrive, but original or genuine is not written on any man’s forehead. You can interview 1000 people and you pick five of them, at the end of the day those five may turn out to be armed robbers. I saw a lot of tricks being played to defraud the business owner. You can imagine every morning we will take stock, you enter the store, you see about a hundred cartons of cigarette, you count and record hundred. The next morning, we sell ten out of hundred, tomorrow you count, you see ninety. Until one day, as I was counting the cartons, I discovered that one roll was a bit bent. And I asked what the problem could be only to find out that the store keeper had included some empty cartons. He had sold the packets inside, arranged empty cartons and put some full ones on top. The empty one gave way. You can imagine a store containing about five hundred cartons, you are relying on cartons not knowing most of them are empty, half empty or containing only a quarter of its content.
Let’s talk about your own business
Yes, I started it on my dining table, having designed the characters. I started drawing the cartoons.
(Cuts in) All from your head
Yes, from my head. The thing is that cartoon stories are nothing but applying jokes which is the theory to the story and cartoon practically. I collected thousands of jokes, I looked at each joke and turned it into a story and cartoon it. It is like a stingy man for instance, his child was thirsty on a very sunny afternoon, and he is crying for Fanta and the man says no I won’t buy you Fanta I will buy you pure water but then, he could not find pure water to buy. The stingy man was then forced to buy a bottle of Fanta for the boy. Immediately after drinking the Fanta the boy removed his underwear to urinate, the man then grabbed him asking do you want to waste the Fanta. That is a joke in written form. I will then look at my characters, which of the characters will this joke suit. I link the joke to Pa Jimoh or Pa James as a very stingy old man. I link the jokes to the characters and illustrate with the cartoon. That was for Ikebe Super which started December 1976, it was four years later, in 1980 that Super Story started.
By the end of the first six months, I was selling 50, 000 copies. My father had this insurance company and I told him I wanted to insure about three vehicles, he invited me to ask if I was into some kind of fraud. I explained to him how the magazine was selling, and he told me he has heard about Ikebe Super. He was so happy to register the vehicles for me such that he gave me a Volkswagen bus to help with distribution. At that point he started getting proud of me because of the success of the magazine. That was how we produced more 60, 000, 70, 000, 100, 000, 200, 000, 500, 000 monthly. Surprisingly Super Story is the only magazine that beat Ikebe Super but people did not really know this. Super Story came, climbed up the ladder, it sold about 650, 000 copies so the two are the largest ever then. They sold more than Sunday Times at some point!
So why did the comics stop if they were doing so well?
My publishing business was doing very well but I made a business mistake. Although I was able to recover from it. I decided to go into printing, and I acquired machines forgetting that printing is a different ball game. The machine operators started exploiting me. It started to affect my creativity because I could not concentrate. Most of the time, they would say this machine had stopped working, we would call the maintenance people, they would come collude with them and take money from me. At a stage, I started spending more money on my own printing than what I would have paid a printer outside.
Another mistake I made was that when I wanted to save money for transportation, I bought lorries for transporting my magazine to the East and North. The drivers nearly killed me. I would send the driver to Kaduna and they would run Kaduna to Maiduguri two times before coming back to Lagos. That is why entrepreneurs have to be very careful. Sometimes you kill yourself with expansion. If you are a publisher, remain a publisher, the job of changing machines every year to the latest one is the job of the printer not the publisher so that you can concentrate.
So how did Papa Ajasco and Super Story get on Television
We were publishing Ikebe Super and growing in leaps and bounds then the Babaginda regime devalued the naira. At some point in the history of this country, one British Pound was less than a naira, but this devaluation affected the cost of newsprint, which was our main raw material. Government tried to intervene by establishing Oku Iboku Paper Mill, but I think the location also killed the idea as transportation of products to Lagos was even more expensive than the ones we imported. The economy also took a turn and magazine sales nosedived. Things became so bad that instead of selling 500, 000 – 600, 000 copies, we now sold 50-60 thousand copies. It was not encouraging. The target audience was the low-income people, so they could not afford it anymore.
This was why we rested the magazines. But then, we still wanted to continue to entertain Nigerians which was why we now re-packaged for television, which has proved to be more sustainable.
For instance, you want to release your magazine on Monday and it rains heavily, rain usually disturbs sales, the few people that buy it before the rain would have circulated it among their friends and by the time the rain stops, you have so many unsold copies. Distributors owe you a lot of money, they sell and don’t want to pay because magazines operate on a sell and return basis, but television is neater, rain does not disturb, piracy does not affect it. In areas people could not get Ikebe Super some people were making photocopies to sell. The economy made us stop publishing. At the time we stopped we started the Binta School in Ejigbo with the structures we had and we were ready to transmit into television. That is why Papa Ajasco birthed on AIT as early as 1997, it took us two years to transit into television we stopped publishing in 1995.
And then in 1999, an old friend of mine who worked with an advertising agency mentioned the fact that Lever Brothers limited was interested in the sponsorship of soap opera. We were able to convince them that Nigerian wanted more than the glamour that most of those programmes presented. I went back to study the file copies of Super Story magazines, selected the Suara story and set out to plan its adaptation on television with the title, Oh Father, Oh Daughter! He had to begin from somewhere, somehow and the Suara narrative came in handy. We wrote the story and produced a one- hour pilot which was submitted to Unilever, alongside many other producers. The scenario looked like an epic battle, judging by the deluge of entries that Unilever received which was more than two hundred, and so began a long wait. But the story impressed them, and we got the sponsorship!